If the meaningless games in March take on occasionally deeper meaning, then it must be Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
“The baseball exhibition! The baseball exhibition!”
That was my roommate talking. He didn’t know anything about baseball, but he knew that the proper phrase was “exhibition game,” a nugget that had thus far eluded my new girlfriend. She had been calling what I’d be taking her to that Saturday “the baseball exhibition” and he must have caught me rolling my eyes.
Call it what you want, Spring Training 1982 was underway and I was on the verge of meeting one of my long-term goals as a fan: Go see the Mets at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. I can’t say it’s the reason I opted to attend the University of South Florida practically next door in Tampa but I can’t say it didn’t enter my thinking.
What I never saw coming, because I never thought about it in tangible terms, was that I’d be going to my first preseason showdown ever, Mets versus Dodgers, with my girlfriend. My girlfriend. Though it certainly sounded ideal in theory, it never occurred to me I would have one.
But 25 years ago, in March 1982, the second semester of my freshman year at USF, I did. I’d been going out with a girl from down the hall of my co-ed dorm for a little over a month. As I was the type who never took the USF Bull by the horns, it was she who approached me for our first formal date. And even then, it took a quaint institutionalized throwback to get it done.
Our dorm was holding a Sadie Hawkins dance, where the girls ask the guys. I knew what it was because there was a Sadie Hawkins Day in Li’l Abner, the only high school musical I will ever be in for the rest of my life (pump me with Bacardi and I will perform my mercifully brief solo). This girl didn’t know from Sadie Hawkins. In fact, she referred to the event in question as the Sadie Hopkins dance. Probably because I was so stunned to be in this conversation at all, I didn’t feel compelled to correct her.
Would I go to this dance with you? Uh, sure, I guess. I mean, yeah! Wow, an actual date with an actual girl. What will they think of next?
Did I mention the date of the dance was February 13? Nothing unlucky or extraordinary about that, except the next day was February 14. Valentine’s Day. On The Office, morose Ryan and gregarious Kelly have their first date on Valentine’s Eve, and Ryan — who’s pretty reluctant to begin with — lives to regret the timing. In a way, I would, too, because it probably ratcheted up the romantic stakes a little quickly. Then again, by the time I was 19, I pretty much required a kickstart in the dating department.
The two of us (both a lot more like Ryan than Kelly for what that’s worth) went to the dance and had a lovely time. We had known each other in a slight, nodding fashion through the first semester, so it wasn’t all that awkward. I remember us being the only couple whose slow dancing didn’t involve the guy’s hand on the girl’s ass. We didn’t know each other that well and that sort of behavior struck me as ungentlemanly. I was probably shy around girls from a lifetime of watching sitcoms in which platonic relationships came perilously close to being ruined by the guy inferring the “wrong message” from the girl’s kindness toward him. I probably should have watched less TV all the time.
Like I said, the dance was the 13th, a Saturday night. It seemed only polite to ask her out for brunch on Sunday, the 14th. I took her to the Bennigan’s near University Square Mall. She ordered quiche. I had a bite. I still felt like a real man. Brunch, like the dance, went well. We hit it off as February progressed. She had a motormouth roommate she was anxious to complain about. I liked my roommate fine but was always annoyed that when there was a knock on the door, it was almost always for him. She voiced the same complaint about her situation. I suspect if she and I each had our own rooms — or if we weren’t so apparently unpopular — we may never have gotten together.
March rolled around and it was time to make my move. On Al Lang Stadium, I mean.
Al Lang, which the Mets shared every spring with the Cardinals, wasn’t Shea. It didn’t have to be. It was the Mets, just a bay away. In Tampa, home of incessant chatter over the Bucs and the Rowdies (professional soccer — oy), who could ask for anything more? It was like Mr. Doubleday and Mr. Wilpon airlifted the team to my neck of the woods for a month every year just as a personal favor to my sanity.
Not knowing Al Lang from Al Schmelz, my girlfriend couldn’t have appreciated that, but she did appreciate that I was sharing my overriding passion with her. Most guys she’d dated, she said, were only interested in one thing. I heard that. I was only interested in one thing that semester if you get my drift.
George Foster, of course…what the hell did you think I was talking about?
Yeah her, too, I guess. I don’t mean to sound blasé about finally being involved with someone, even five weeks involved. It was pretty cool, actually. “My girlfriend and I are going to the Mets game this Saturday” sounded decent. The key phrase in that sentence was Mets game, but I liked having company. And if she, art major that she was, thought the baseball exhibition was akin to something you’d see down the street in St. Pete at the Dali Museum, well, neither of us was going to get in the way of each other’s Grapefruit League good time.
Nice, hot sunny day that Saturday. Nice, hot sunny day all the time in the Tampa Bay area in March. (Another good reason to discover higher education Florida-style.) Big crowd at Al Lang for the Mets and Dodgers. Probably for the Dodgers. Yeah, definitely the Dodgers. They were defending world champions, having defeated the Yankees the previous October. They didn’t often trek across the state from Vero Beach. The Mets? Until further notice, they were still the Mets and all that implied to the outside world. But they were the Mets suddenly plopped into my backyard. Oh what a nice, hot sunny Saturday.
What could make it better? What could improve a scenario that included the Mets, the girlfriend and the warmth?
How about a foul ball?
To that Saturday, I had been to Shea Stadium on 20 different occasions. Not a lot, but enough to know that foul balls were for other people. I had never come close to even thinking about catching one. Ah, but we weren’t at Shea. We were in a ballpark maybe a seventh its size. Plus I was coming into all sorts of things I’d never gotten close to before. If I could have the Mets while I was away at college, if I could have a steady date, if I could have 80 degrees on the third weekend in March, why couldn’t I have a foul ball?
I can’t believe how easy it was. In the second inning, Ken Landreaux faced Craig Swan. Landreaux, who always struck me as rather shifty around the eyes, batted from the left side. We were sitting somewhere down the left field line in the grandstand behind the box seats, my girlfriend on my right, nobody to my direct left. Shifty Landreaux did not get all of Swannie’s delivery. It looped foul on an arc, took one bounce off the concrete walkway separating the boxes from the grandstand and settled softly into the palm of my unchallenged left hand.
Just like that I caught a foul ball.
Holy smokes! I can’t believe this! I’ve seen it on TV. I’ve seen it from a distance at Shea. Now it’s me. For two solitary seconds, everybody is looking at me because I’ve got the ball! I know what to do, too!
I raised my left arm high and showed it off. Turned to the right, turned to the left, basked in the well-meaning pointing of the Mets fans and Dodgers fans, imagined that a glimpse of me was on Channel 9 back in New York.
To all of which my girlfriend, an inning-and-a-half into her first baseball exhibition, craned her neck away from me and toward the top of Al Lang.
“I think that guy up there got it,” she surmised.
I shoved the ball in front of her face.
“Oh! You got it!”
OK, so she missed my heroics, but she understood at once that a foul ball is special. Everybody did. When I brought it back to the dorm, I knocked on every door of everybody I knew even a little and showed it off. I didn’t really know any big baseball fans, let alone Mets fans there, but everybody — everybody — was impressed. Everybody gets a foul ball because nobody gets a foul ball. But I did.
Man, I can still feel that ball landing in my left palm. It spoiled me. For years I just assumed I’d grab another one that easily. It’s never happened. Picked up one at a White Sox game in 1999, but that was the result of an unseemly scramble in which somebody else’s fingers had just a little too much butter on them, leaving me to vulture the unclaimed sphere. I cherish that one, too, but the Ken Landreaux ball is the only one I can say I caught, even if it was on one extremely felicitous bounce.
Mets would lose to the Dodgers 10-4 that afternoon. Spring Training scores don’t matter. This one really didn’t matter. I got a ball. I had a ball. I had a girlfriend at a ballgame. She got a low-key kick out of the whole thing. She asked a few “what’s that?” questions as regarded the field of play but otherwise just soaked up the baseball exhibition atmosphere. On the way back to the dorm and for days thereafter, she kept thanking me for sharing such a personal passion with her. And it’s always nice to be thanked.
As with the foul ball, appreciation by her for me being simply being me would never come quite that easy again. Oh, we carried on what I would guess was a typical college romance — a lot of hanging out punctuated by bouts of drama. We lasted without too much turmoil clear to the end of the following academic year, never officially breaking up as much as simply expiring. After a fashion, we just kind of ran out of things to talk about. To be fair, I wasn’t necessarily all that interesting at 19 and 20 without a baseball game in front of me. Besides, she was a senior when I was a sophomore. She was graduating and moving back to Miami. I was continuing my studies and annual Spring Training forays in Tampa-St. Pete. That was essentially that.
Her last month at school, April 1983, we did go to another baseball exhibition, the Mets versus the Yankees. It was called off on account of rain. Seemed appropriate for where we were versus one spring earlier.
We kept in touch on and off for a few years after she graduated. No real point to it. I kept in touch with everybody. We were friends, just like in the sitcoms. In my last letter to her, in the summer of ’87, I mentioned I’d met a girl I was getting pretty serious with. She wrote back to tell me not to go overboard too soon, that “we girls don’t like to be rushed.” I never bothered writing back.
Y’know, it never occurred to me until now that our first date of any measurable off-campus distance was an exhibition game, while my first date with Stephanie five years later, 1987, would be at Shea. Makes sense: Some players look good in a Florida State League ballpark in March, but the truly special ones have what it takes to make it in The Show.
Next Friday: When life begins.